On Friday afternoon more than 2,000 experts will wrap up a week of negotiations on plastic pollution at one of the largest global gatherings ever to address what even industry leaders in plastics say is a crisis.
It was the first meeting of a United Nations committee set up to draft what is intended to be a landmark treaty to bring an end to plastic pollution globally.
“If we look 30 years from now, we’re set to have four times more plastic. We’re in an extremely unfortunate situation. So you must have a global approach to this,” said Björn Beeler, who was at the meeting as the international coordinator for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, or IPEN.
Entire beaches on what used to be pristine islands are now mounded with trash. Examination of a random handful of sand in many places reveals pieces of plastic.
The United Nations Environment Programme held the meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee in a city known for its beaches, Punta del Este, Uruguay, from Monday through Friday.
Delegates from more than 160 countries, plastic industry representatives, environmentalists, scientists, waste pickers, tribal leaders and others affected by the pollution attended in person or virtually. Waste pickers are seeking recognition of their work and a just transition to fairly-remunerated, healthy and sustainable jobs.
Even in this first meeting of five planned over the next two years, factions came into focus. Some countries pressed for top-down global mandates, some for national solutions and others for both. If an agreement is eventually adopted, it would be the first legally-binding global treaty to combat plastic pollution.
Leading the industry point of view was the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for chemical companies. Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division, said companies want to work with governments on the issue because they also are frustrated by the problem. But he said they won’t support production restrictions, as some countries want.
“The challenge is very simple. It is working to ensure that used plastics never enter the environment,” Baca said. “A top-down approach that puts a cap or a ban on production does nothing to address the challenges that we face from a waste management perspective.”
The United States, a top plastic-producing country, wants national action plans to end plastic pollution so that governments can prioritize the most important sources and types of plastic pollution.
Most plastic is made from fossil fuels. Other plastic-producing and oil and gas countries also called for putting the responsibility on individual nations. China’s delegate said it would be hard to effectively control global plastic pollution with one or even several universal approaches.
Saudi Arabia’s delegate also said each country should determine its own action plan, with no standardization or harmonization among them. Plastic plays a vital role in sustainable development, the delegate said, so the treaty should recognize the importance of continuing plastic production while tackling the root cause of the pollution, which he identified as poor waste management.
Some referred to these countries as the “low ambition” group. Andrés Del Castillo, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, said that while national plans are important, they should not be the treaty’s backbone because that’s the system — or lack of one — that the world already has.
“We don’t see a point of meeting five times with experts all around the world to discuss voluntary actions, when there are specific control measures that are needed that can aim to reduce, then eliminate plastic pollution in the world,” he said after participating in the discussions Thursday. “It’s a transboundary problem.”
The self-named “high ambition coalition” of countries want an end to plastic pollution by 2040, using an ambitious, effective international legally-binding instrument. They’re led by Norway and Rwanda.
Norway’s delegate to the meeting said plastic production and use must be curbed, and the first priority should be to identify which plastic products, polymers and chemical additives would bring the fastest benefit if phased out.
African nations, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and others called for a global approach too, arguing that voluntary and fragmented national approaches won’t address the magnitude of plastic pollution. Small island countries that rely on the ocean for food and livelihoods spoke of being overwhelmed by plastic waste washing up on their shores. Developing countries said they need financial support to combat plastic pollution.
Australia, the United Kingdom and Brazil said international obligations should complement national action.
Tadesse Amera, an environmental scientist, said the treaty should address not only waste but the environmental health issues posed by chemicals in plastics as the products are used, recycled, discarded or burned as waste. Amera is the director of Pesticide Action Nexus Association Ethiopia and IPEN co-chair.
“It’s not a waste management issue,” he said. “It’s a chemical issue and a health issue, human health and also biodiversity.”
People from communities impacted by the industry went to the meeting to ensure their voices are considered throughout the treaty talks. That group included Frankie Orona, executive director of the Society of Native Nations in Texas.
“There’s a lack of inclusion from those that are directly negatively impacted by this industry. And they need to be at the table,” he said. “A lot of times they have solutions.”
Orona said the talks seem focused, so far, on reducing plastic, when governments should aim higher.
“We need to completely break free from plastics,” he said.
The next meeting is planned for the spring.